Crist getting an earful on teacher tenure bill

April 14th, 2010 by

TALLAHASSEE – With the possible exception of Terri Schiavo’s fate, Gov. Charlie Crist says he has never had so many people lobbying him so passionately over one issue: How to grade and pay teachers in Florida.

That includes pleas from his own two sisters who have taught, and his father, a one-time chairman of the Pinellas County school board. He also received a voicemail from a certain former governor, Jeb Bush, who is lobbying hard for the plan to grade teachers partly through direct tests of student performance.

A few teachers have managed to catch a personal moment with the governor in the Capitol building hallways, and nearly crying, implored him to veto the bill.

That bill envisions a range of new tests and formulas to measure how effectively teachers help students make gains – many of which are yet to be written, though the program would be administered largely in Tallahassee at the Department of Education. It phases out many features in teaching, such as a form of year-to-year job stability for teachers and extra pay for earning advanced degrees.

The clock is ticking on the governor to act. He has until 11:59 p.m. Friday to sign or veto a law passed last week by the House; the Senate had approved in late March. If he takes no action, it becomes law. If he vetoes the issue, the Legislature would have to decide whether to re-address the issue.

Although earlier in the day Crist indicated he planned to take the seven days he has to act on the bill, Tuesday evening Crist indicated he could announce his decision as soon as Thursday. Acknowledging the public debate on the bill, he said, “We’ll put an end to it soon.”

Specifically on the question of whether teachers should have a form of job security or tenure year to year, Crist said “I’m not sure. I think that we should have accountability. I think that we do need to take a measure of what happens in the classroom. I have been an advocate of those things. I think it has helped Florida enormously in recent years.”

Officials with the governor’s office say between March 1 and Monday April 12, they’ve received 15,968 calls, 1,869 letters and 18,188 e-mails against the bill, with 264 calls, 11 letters and 80 e-mails in support.

One letter hand delivered to Crist on Monday was from the Florida School Boards Association, urging the governor to veto the bill.

“We believe this bill is fatally flawed in many respects” and is having a “chilling effect … on the recruitment of excellent teachers,” said the letter signed by the association’s president, Georgia “Joy” Bowen and executive director Wayne Blanton.

In an interview Tuesday, Blanton said that while his association supports portions of the bill, it is concerned about the cost to implement the plan, which he said is “one of the largest unfunded mandates” placed on schools; the constitutional questions raised in bypassing collective bargaining and in home rule. In addition, he said, the bill would put school boards in an adversarial role with teachers unions.

SB 6, Blanton said, “was rammed down everybody’s throats with no discussion with the education community.

“There are no moderates,” he said. “I can’t get anybody to compromise.” Blanton suggested that after the session, Crist “put everybody that’s affected in the room, lock the doors and we’ll come out with something.”

Mark Wilson, the president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which supports the bill, noted that passing the teacher bill with a signature from Crist is at the top of their agenda this year.

“I know it’s hard to understand, but the real reason we’re doing this is the next economy,” Wilson said during a press conference of organizations supporting the bill. “Our competition is coming from Finland, Singapore, India, China. My kids are not competing with people in Atlanta for those jobs.”

Crist has vetoed bills supported by the Chamber in the past, he said, and “we’d be disappointed” if he vetoed the teacher bill.

Crowds of teachers have been descending on the Capitol building all week.

Tuesday morning, Crist walked out of a Cabinet meeting to talk to teachers gathered in the lobby. Some told him they worried that a lack of tenure could open them up to dismissal for raising red flags about problems at the school, or raising worries about other teachers behaving inappropriately with students.

One teacher who works with special needs kids, Jennifer Barnhill of Leon County caught the Governor’s attention and simply pleaded to him, almost weeping, “I may be penalized by working with ESL kids, and kids from a low socioeconomic background.”

Others say they wish the debate didn’t break down to politics of Republicans versus teacher’s unions. “This should be about kids, not politics,” said another teacher, Pamela Moore of Leon County, standing in the lobby outside the Cabinet room.

Then suddenly, Moore turned and Crist introduced himself to her, with a circle of TV cameras following him.

“As media specialists, we do not have a classroom,” Moore told Crist. “I teach all the students in the school, and I look at parts of teaching just being ticked off one by one. I love my students. I love my school. We do not teach for the money. It’s what’s in my heart. Please veto this bill.”

Crist replied, “I’m thinking about it, I can assure you,” and hugged Moore.

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